There was something of a freakout among liberals this past weekend, over this New York Times story about a young Midwestern guy who is a neo-Nazi. Excerpt:

His political evolution — from vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to fascist activist — was largely fueled by the kinds of frustrations that would not seem exotic to most American conservatives. He believes the federal government is too big, the news media is biased, and that affirmative action programs for minorities are fundamentally unfair.

Ask him how he moved so far right, and he declares that public discourse has become “so toxic that there’s no way to effectively lobby for interests that involve white people.” He name-drops Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, architects of “anarcho-capitalism,” with its idea that free markets serve as better societal regulators than the state. And he refers to the 2013 science-fiction movie “Pacific Rim,” in which society is attacked by massive monsters that emerge from beneath the Pacific Ocean.

“So the people, they don’t ask the monsters to stop,” he says. “They build a giant robot to try to stop them. And that’s essentially what fascism is. It’s like our version of centrally coming together to try to stop another already centralized force.”

Mr. Hovater grew up on integrated Army bases and attended a mostly white Ohio high school. He did not want for anything. He experienced no scarring racial episodes. His parents, he says, were the kinds of people who “always assume things aren’t going well. But they don’t necessarily know why.”

What did liberals freak out about? The fact that the Times didn’t demonize him. That they made Hovater seem more or less normal. This, according to the critics, meant the Times was guilty of “normalizing” neo-Nazis.

This is wrong. Seems to me that the Times reporter was simply reporting straightforwardly on an actual phenomenon. It is scary that the nice guy next door might be a neo-Nazi. But shouldn’t you want to know about him, and how he got to be that way, if only to protect you own kids from the same fate? In the same way, if the Times writes a straightforward piece about how the nice young man from down the street was recruited online to join ISIS, shouldn’t you want to know about it, if only to be able to protect your own kids?

My sense is that liberals who got angry about the “normalizing neo-Nazis” story are like Evangelical Christians who believe that every movie should have a clear and unambiguous moral message, lest anybody be lured off the straight and narrow path. It makes for bad art, and for bad journalism. Early this year, when a reader told me about how white nationalism was finding a foothold in his conservative Christian high school, right under the noses of teachers and parents, who had no idea what was going on, I found that news shocking but useful — “useful” in the sense of issuing a wake-up call to adults living in their (our) bubble, unaware of how bad people with malicious ideas are finding ways to influence our children.

If you worry that The New York Times piece is going to make neo-Nazism seem attractive to others, you are way behind the curve. The kind of people attracted to neo-Nazism — that is to say, the kind of people like Hovater — are not going to be drawn to it because of a story in the Times, a paper they do not read. My feeling is that the kind of people who read that story in the Times are going to be awakened to a problem they assumed, wrongly, was far away, because they don’t see anybody in their own neighborhood goose-stepping down the street and Sieg-heil-ing at every crosswalk.

I don’t want newspaper journalism to tell me what to think. Granted, full objectivity is not possible, but inasmuch as it is achievable, I want a newspaper to present the world as it is, and let me make my own mind up. The chief conservative complaint about liberal media bias has been that journalists do not air views — typically conservative ones — that contradict their own.

The conservative Tweeter neontaster has a plausible explanation:

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I agree with this. I remember years ago, after I was well into adulthood, learning from older people in my hometown the identities of some of the men who were Klansmen back in the 1950s and 1960s. I was shocked. “You mean Mr. ____ was a Klansman?! Really? He’s so sweet.” There were more than a few of these men — men I was raised to respect, and who I saw only as neighborly and, well, normal. But back in the day, they had put on white hoods, burned crosses, and heaven knows what else. That shook me up, realizing how very close evil was. A lot of Southerners my age and older can tell the same stories.

Last night I was reading from a book about contemporary German history. The Nazis began as outsiders, as fringe figures. People seem to have this idea that grotesque evil is always something you can see coming from a mile away. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take my usual go-to example: Internet pornography. Many parents like to think that the kind of people who watch hardcore porn are creeps who are Not Nice People Like Us. Meanwhile, they hand their kids smartphones, which opens a pipeline from the world of hardcore porn into their own homes, and into the imaginations of their children. These parents prefer not to think about it, because their illusions excuse them from having to do the hard work of doing something about it. It’s the same with any form of extreme anti-social behavior.

However, in fairness, I do concede that there is an unavoidable element of “normalizing” in any story a major media outlet like the NYT does on a fringe phenomenon. Media bias usually expresses itself not by media telling readers, viewers, and listeners what to think, but rather by framing the possibilities of what is acceptable thought. Liberals upset by the “neo-Nazi next door” piece are afraid that by paying attention to Hovater, and by presenting him in a neutral way, the Times is giving permission to others to consider him within the bounds of the normal. Again, I think that neontaster’s analysis is correct, but those complaining about the piece aren’t entirely wrong, either.

Here’s what I mean. Yesterday, the Times ran a story about young men — and little boys! — who have become massive social media stars as exemplars of how men can and should apply make-up. Here’s a screen grab of the top of the story; nothing quite shocks you like the photo:

That kid, Jack Bennett, is 10 years old. He has 337,000 Instagram followers.  From the story:

Since convincing his mother to start his account in May, young Mr. Bennett, who lives in Berkshire, England, has amassed 331,000 followers [he’s added 6,000 since this story appeared — RD] and attracted the attention of brands like MAC and NYX, which have offered products to create looks. Refinery29 has celebrated him as the next big thing in makeup.

He is the latest evidence of a seismic power shift in the beauty industry, which has thrust social media influencers to the top of the pecking order. Refreshingly, they come in all shapes, sizes, ages and, more recently, genders. Hailed by Marie Claire as the “beauty boys of Instagram,” the early male pioneers, like Patrick Simondac(@PatrickStarrr), Jeffree Star (@jeffreestar) and Manny Gutierrez, (@MannyMua733), have transcended niche to become juggernauts with millions of followers. And their aesthetic is decidedly new: neither old-school-rocker makeup nor drag queen.

More:

Men like Mr. Starrr have since influenced a new generation of young men who are wearing makeup and posting about it. According to the Instagram data team, there has been a 20 percent increase since the start of the year in mentions of “makeup” by male accounts on the platform.

In only a couple of years, these young men have gained sway in the industry. Cosmetics brands like Milk Makeup have built their offerings on genderless beauty; the skin-care company Glow Recipe hosts sold-out boy beauty mask classes; and in the fragrance aisle, unisex scent houses continue to grow.

I think this is Weimar-Republic crazy, and I think it’s hard to deny that the Times paying attention to it unavoidably mainstreams it. On the other hand, men and boys becoming social media make-up stars has happened despite the lack of mainstream media notice. What do we expect media outlets like the Times to do, ignore it? I don’t. There are reasons why this has become a social and cultural phenomenon, and it’s important to understand those reasons, especially if we want to prevent our young men from falling down that rabbit hole. That little boys become social media superstars by putting on gobs of make-up and presenting themselves as dead ringers for child prostitutes is evidence of a profound crisis of masculinity in Western culture. Attention must be paid.

The Times no doubt thinks little boys wearing make-up is a sign of progress, but that’s beside the point. It’s happening whether or not the Times pays attention to it. Yes, there’s an observer effect at work here, in that the mere fact that an observer with an eyeball as big as The New York Times‘s pays attention to a phenomenon affects that development of that phenomenon. This cannot be helped, whether it’s with mascara-wearing boys or Seinfeld-watching fascists. But if the observed phenomenon is seen as a threat to the moral order, knowing about it, and why people find it attractive, is important for those who wish to combat it.

Finally, you should consider that the NYT is not what it used to be. None of the legacy media institutions are. Donald Trump has 40 million more Twitter followers than the Times has subscribers. That 10-year-old British kid who wears make-up has 10 percent of the subscribers to his Instagram account that the Times — the most important newspaper in the most important country in the world — has in total. True, your average Times subscriber is likely to be far more influential in the world than your average Jack Bennett Instagram follower, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the Internet and social media have radically disrupted media hierarchies.

UPDATE: Reader kgasmart comments:

Look, part of the problem is that no one wants to consider that the neo-Nazis are reactionary – in that they are reacting to something. And among other things, it’s the idea that we ought to celebrate – not just tolerate but celebrate, perhaps even encourage – young boys wearing makeup.

They are reacting to liquid modernism in all its zero-sum glory, the idea that companies must become more diverse by specifically excluding whites from job consideration, that feminism requires men to not only provide a seat at the table but forfeit their own seat, that the traditional family is actually oppressive, that whatever your religious beliefs you’ll bake the cake or else.

The left in particularly likes to pretend it has no idea where the neo-Nazis came from, or that whatever they are reacting to are benign social changes that “everyone” else accepts. But extreme rightism is, at least in part, a response to extreme leftism. There is a reason we are seeing it now, and that reason isn’t spelled “Trump,” though in winking at it he’s helped encourage it. But it would have existed without him.

And so long as we as a society continue to push ever leftward, this rightist reaction will persist, and perhaps worsen.

UPDATE.2: In a commentary published today on the NYT site, the reporter talks about how he never was able to find Hovater’s Rosebud. This happens in real life, you know. Not everything comes into sharp, cause-and-effect focus. Hovater probably doesn’t even understand himself. From the reporter’s commentary:

After I had filed an early version of the article, an editor at The Times told me he felt like the question had not been sufficiently addressed. So I went back to Mr. Hovater in search of answers. I still don’t think I really found them. I could feel the failure even as Mr. Hovater and I spoke on the phone, adding to what had already been hours of face-to-face conversation in and around his hometown New Carlisle, Ohio.

On the phone, Mr. Hovater responded to my question by rattling off names of libertarian academics, making references to sci-fi movies and describing, yet again, his frustration with what he described as the plodding and unjust nature of American democracy. As he did so, I was thinking about an album I grew up with by the Minutemen, the Southern California punk group, and its brilliantly koanic title: “What Makes a Man Start Fires?”

To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise. Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a high school yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods.

Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader.

I beat myself up about all of this for a while, until I decided that the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect. What I had were quotidian details, though to be honest, I’m not even sure what these add up to. Like other committed extremists I have known, Mr. Hovater had little time for a life beyond his full-time job and his line of activism. When he is not doing those things, he likes to be at home with his girlfriend (now his wife) and their cats.

In a very different context, I once interviewed the actor John Hurt about a character that he played with great brilliance and emotional insight. He found it hard to answer my questions, and finally said, “I think you understand this character better than I do.” That might have been true at an intellectual level, but John Hurt absolutely grokked this character at an intuitive level, which is why he was so damn good at it. People don’t always know why they do the things they do, believe the things they believe. John Hurt understood that character very well, but he could not articulate what he was able to portray onscreen. And he could not explain any of it to the reporter trying to pin him down about how he created the character.

That is the mystery of human life — and why the story as written is so unnerving. Think about it: if you knew exactly why Hovater became what he has become, it would be theoretically possible to build defenses against others becoming like him. But what if there is no discernible answer? Isn’t that actually more frightening?

Ever read Camus’s novel The Stranger? The protagonist kills an Arab. He doesn’t know why. That’s part of the novel’s point.